Art plays a part

Works of art and views of nature promote healing at the new hospital

The Air Cube sculpture at Stanford Hospital

“In the warmth of morning sun, we seek solace that brings the promise, a new beginning. Rays of sun have the power to heal our frail bodies, fragile minds and lift our forsaken souls. In the light of divine wisdom, we find refuge and welcome the coming of a brand new day.” — Jinnie Seo

When artist Jinnie Seo arrived at the new Stanford Hospital this May to begin painting a mural for the interfaith chapel, the project reflected a culmination of five years of ruminating on a theme she calls Rays of Hope.

Seo was so moved by the commission, her first for a chapel and a place of healing, she wrote a poem about the power of light to heal “our frail bodies, fragile minds and lift our forsaken souls.”

For two months, Seo and her studio assistant, Jihyun Lee, spent six days a week in residence creating the mural — also called Rays of Hope. It is one of hundreds of works of art displayed throughout the hospital, echoing a strong belief by planners in the benefits of art and nature in healing.

During the project, Seo and Lee rose at sunrise, starting each day with a prayer — a moment of reflection that guided them as they worked. Immersed in their craft, they stayed on-site for 12 hours a day, sometimes napping in their car, not wanting to interrupt their devotion or concentration.

Using a rendering she had designed as a template, Seo painted each brushstroke free form, allowing the art to evolve spontaneously as she drew inspiration from the space to create the mural, which is one of seven site-specific commissioned artistic works in the hospital.

Fourteen layers of cerulean blue paint formed the mural’s backdrop. A series of fine, straight lines in gold and silver metallic paint followed, each at a slightly different angle to convey the impression of curves and movement. For some, the image is reminiscent of butterflies in flight, Seo said. The wall, finished in high-gloss varnish, shimmers in the natural light that emanates from the chapel’s large windows.

“I wanted to give a person a space to pause and be still, even for one moment,” Seo said. “That moment can last an eternity and be a life-changing experience.”

Ray's of Hope painting on the wall of the Stanford Hospital chapel
Artist Jinnie Seo painted each brushstroke of her Rays of Hope, panting free form, allowing the art to evolve spontaneously as she drew inspiration from the space to create the mural, which is inside the chapel of the new Stanford Hospital.
Closeup of Rays of Hope painting in the Stanford Hospital chapel
Detail of artist Jinnie Seo’ Rays of Hope mural.

For Seo, conceptualizing and painting Rays of Hope was a personal and spiritual journey. “It is a very intimate chapel. It is a space of healing — spiritual healing and physical healing. I hope that the people who enter here will find their own space, their own light within.”

The same philosophy was inherent in the planning and design of the hospital, which opened Nov. 17. Equal value was placed on the restorative qualities of art and nature as was placed on other design elements in and around the hospital, including multiple outdoor gardens and expansive windows that provide sweeping views of the surrounding bay and landscapes.

“We think about patients, their loved ones and families and the staff. Those three groups of people are all important to nurture,” said Connie Wolf, consulting director of the art program for the new hospital. They wondered, “How can we create an environment that supports the patients’ healing and well-being, provides comfort to their families, and offers relief to the complex and challenging work of the staff?”

In the early 1980s, a group of volunteers formed to acquire and hang art on the then-empty walls of Stanford Hospital. What this group sensed about the power of art — that it could promote healing — was proven later that decade in multiple studies by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, PhD, and others.

Research indicated that having access to art can substantially decrease a patient’s blood pressure, stress, the amount of pain medication needed and the time it takes to recover. Ulrich’s study, released in 1984, of post-surgical patients showed similar outcomes when they were able to see images of nature or had windows that allowed them to view natural settings.

Noh Views: Bridge, Echo and Noh Vista painting by Brian Isobe
A grouping of paintings inspired by traditional Japanese Noh theater fill the walls outside the family resource center. The are is called  Noh Views: Bridge, Echo and Noh Vista , by artist Brian Isobe.

“Integrating art into the hospital environment allows us to think holistically about the healing of the mind, the soul and the spirit,” said Wolf. The new hospital is graced by 400-plus works of art, all of which were either donated or paid for through private donations.

Stanford Health Care has a dedicated art commission, made up of 14 volunteers led by Linda Meier, who also serves on the Stanford Health Care board of directors. Their work for the new hospital began more than five years ago with commissions for the pieces that were planned for specific locations.

Acquisition of the hundreds of other works of art that embellish the hallways was a methodical, 2½-year process of finding pieces they believe are not only uplifting, beautiful and inspiring, but also have depth, complexity and layers of meaning.

Patients and families sometimes spend long periods of time at the hospital, Meier said: “We want them to be able to come back to the work and experience something different every time.”

Sol LeWitt mural in the new Stanford Hospital
Two master painters and two Stanford students painted this mural — called Wall Drawing #911 — based on a diagram by artist Sol LeWitt.

The art is on display throughout the hospital, including in patient corridors and other open spaces. The third floor, for example, is distinguished by an acrylic mural based on a diagram by the late conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, who is known for his earlier serial pencil wall drawings and later for his bold, colorful, geometric works composed of straight lines, arcs and curves.

In the 1970s, LeWitt began to have others execute his works based on his directions, which consisted of brief instructions, diagrams or both.

The estate of Sol LeWitt provided the hospital’s art commission with a diagram for Wall Drawing #911 that was based on measurements — side-to-side and top-to-bottom — of the wall where it would be installed.

In July, painters Gabriel Hurier and Lexie Bouwsma, who are experienced in following LeWitt’s instructions and diagrams, spent 24 days painting the mural, assisted by Stanford undergraduate students Noah DeWald and Savannah Mohacsi.

Their work required sizing the diagram to precisely fit within its 18-by-10-foot wall space, drawing with pencil, and using nearly 75 rolls of masking tape to delineate each line before they began painting, then following where the diagram indicated each color should be painted. LeWitt’s acrylic wall drawings always use the same primary and secondary colors (along with black, white and gray), which were determined by the artist and are applied in many layers by brush.

Buckyball sculpture outside the entrance of the Stanford Hospital
This 30-foot sculpture — Buckyball by Leo Villareal — of nested spheres greets visitors at the hospital’s entrance.

In addition to acquired works like the LeWitt, the hospital’s public spaces and grounds — the entrance plaza, the atrium, the interfaith chapel and the third-floor galleria and gardens — feature the commissioned pieces.

Coupled with the new garden areas, all of the art helps evoke a tranquil mood, Wolf said. “We want people to walk in, feel welcome and know they are in a place where their health and spirit matter.”


For one of the commissioned pieces, Leo Villareal brought his passion for form and geometry to his larger-than-life sculpture Buckyball, a 30-foot metal structure featuring three nested spheres. As the centerpiece of the hospital’s entrance plaza, LED lights illuminate Buckyball at night in a never-repeating sequence of colors and patterns. Villareal was inspired by the geodesic dome popularized by architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller.

“I’ve always been interested in underlying structures and rules and geometry,” Villareal said. This same geodesic structure was discovered in a carbon molecule by nanotechnologists, he added. “I thought it would be interesting to take something that you could never see with a naked eye and expand it on this monumental scale.”

Villareal is best known in the Bay Area for transforming the western side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge with his Bay Lights installation. As he did with the bridge, Villareal lined Buckyball with light strips and programmed them to twinkle, blink and slowly shift to create a mesmerizing pattern every evening.

Liquid Light sculpture in the atrium of Stanford Hospital
Tumbled glass, woven into waves, reflects light in the hospital’s atrium day and night in the Liquid Light sculpture by James Carpenter.

Reflecting, space, light and nature

In the hospital’s atrium, artist Zadok Ben-David presents two of his Endless Column sculpture works, which intertwine human figures and butterflies that soar in the space.

And artist James Carpenter used large waves of tumbled glass woven together to create Liquid Light, a piece that resembles a reflecting pond, directly under the glass dome in the hospital’s atrium. Shining in light throughout the day, the sculpture provides changing experiences when you walk around it or look down on it from the upper levels.

Ned Kahn’s Air Cube, a 1,000-pound metal sculpture that changes form with the wind, is installed in one of the rooftop gardens. Kahn strives to create art that interacts with natural processes, with the aim of symbolically replicating the forms and forces of nature. Air Cube is lined with rows of metal flaps that move freely and reflect light in ever-shifting ways.

Jennifer Steinkamp’s digital video installation, Diaspora, is in the third floor seating area leading to the gardens. Like its location, the piece serves as a link between the natural and the human worlds. Her work features wildflowers found on the Stanford University campus, drawing a connection between the dissemination of people and culture around the world and a plant’s ability to spread its seeds.

Nearby, a circular galleria that leads into the chapel and a family resource center is home to a series of paintings by Brian Isobe. These stylized interpretations of water, called Noh Views: Bridge, Echo and Noh Vista, are calming and renewing, inspired by traditional Japanese Noh theater in which metaphors and allusions are used to tell the essence of a story.

A video installation of flowers representing those found at Stanford University.
This digital installation — Diaspora , by Jennifer Steinkamp — featuring wildflowers found on the Stanford campus, links the natural and human worlds. (Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul)

Healing gardens

Besides featuring art, planners also considered the natural environment — on the grounds and in the nearby geography — to be essential for patient recovery and health.

Four acres of gardens surround the hospital, including a newly planted orchard of 85 trees. Grounds crews planted six varieties of fruit, nut or flowering trees — ginkgo, loquat, apricot, olive, buckeye and live oak — each selected for its medicinal or food-bearing properties in Eastern, Western and Native American cultures.

The orchard also includes shrubs, rushes, grasses, ash trees and paths to create a shady, serene retreat for patients, families, visitors and staff. The gardens on the street level also include a dog park, complete with a water fountain and fire hydrant.

There are five interconnected rooftop gardens on the third level of the building that include walking paths and many places to sit and gaze out at the skyline. A vertical garden outside the interfaith chapel creates an additional private space for reflection.

The patient rooms present a different kind of visual beauty from the many works of art in the new hospital: By design, every room has a wall-to-wall window to let in natural light and allow patients to take in the beauty of the surrounding foothills.

“There’s such a commitment at Stanford to recognizing that art and nature are part of the healing process,” Wolf said. “They help create an environment where people can think about improving their health, their ability to heal.”


Ned Kahn, Air Cube, 2018; collection of Stanford Health Care; commissioned by Stanford Health Care with the support of William Reller; ©Ned Kahn.

James Carpenter, Liquid Light, 2019; collection of Stanford Health Care; commissioned by Stanford Health Care with the support of Jill & John Freidenrich and Barbara & Ken Oshman; ©James Carpenter.

Jinnie Seo, Rays of Hope, 2019; collection of Stanford Health Care; commissioned by Stanford Health Care with the support of Margaret Jonsson Rogers; ©Jinnie Seo.

Brian Isobe, Noh Views: Bridge, Echo and Noh Vista, 2019; collection of Stanford Health Care; commissioned by Stanford Health Care with the support of Helen and Maurice Werdegar; ©Brian Isobe.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #911 — Irregular arcs, irregular vertical bands, and horizontal wavy bands, 1999; collection of Stanford Health Care; acquired with support from Carolyn and Preston Butcher; ©2019 The LeWitt Estate / Artists Rights Society, New York.

Leo Villareal, Buckyball, 2019; collection of Stanford Health Care; commissioned by Stanford Health Care with the support of Cissy Pao & Shinichiro Watari; ©Leo Villareal.

Jennifer Steinkamp, Diaspora, 2016; collection of Stanford Health Care; acquired with support from Jean A. Gillespie; courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong and Seoul.

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Grace Hammerstrom

Grace Hammerstrom is a freelance writer.

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